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Promising star Emil Meek with no axe to grind in UFC debut

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

TORONTO – Emil Meek arrived in Ontario fully ready to show this other north his Viking roots. His friend and training partner, Thomas Formo, had carried his long two-bladed axe through the airport in Norway, which drew the attention of security. It was all very Nordic conqueror, carrying an axe to work. Meek’s beard, long and red, was like that of Rollo himself — just a devastating show of virility. His eyebrows were spiked to wicked Scandinavian peaks, as cold as the hinterland.

The only problem, as he soon found out, is that Canada ain’t trying to have no Vikings.

Meek is fighting against Jordan Mein on tonight’s UFC 206 main card, but it won’t be the same axe-brandishing longbeard that took out Rousimar Palhares back in May. The Ontario Athletic Commission got a load of his beard and made him cut it to a level that a human hand couldn’t grab it. That was Thursday. The UFC didn’t like the idea of an axe at the live show, blunted though it be, so he’s been without his favorite medieval chopping device. That was Friday.

It turns out his shtick is a little too Tenth Century for modern warrior tastes.

But on Wednesday, while all his Viking dreams were still very optimistically intact, Meek was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and stroking his beard pensively at the Westin Harbour Castle talking about who he is a little bit, and how he began making his way towards the mixed martial arts.

"I started, I was in the military, the Norwegian Army — we had to do mandatory service for one year — I remember I was downloading Bas Rutten’s striking system," he says. "I had on my headphones and tried to learn to box."

The 28-year old Meek has very quickly captivated the minds of MMA fans and become a folk figure in his native Norway, where MMA is still illegal. He is cut in the Old Norse tradition of brawn and muscle, a throwback to the way Vikings might look if left to Frank Frazetta to create. The original nickname given to him was "The Hulk," solely because of his physique. 

"But I didn’t care for it," he says. "It never felt it was personal. So I changed it. We went for something more Nordic, something more Viking, because we are Vikings, coming from Scandinavia where all the Vikings were. ‘Valhalla.’ It feels more like personal to me."

There aren’t a lot of Viking representatives competing in the UFC. We’ve had some close calls. Tank Abbott was more biker Hun than Viking. Keith Jardine had the feel of something straight off the Gokstad, but in reality he came from Butte, Montana. Meek would seem to have the seafaring market cornered.

Meek had aspirations of being a rock star, first, and to this day he has AC/DC coursing through his veins. From the ages of 15 to 21 he was in a band, and he was drawn to the rock star life (road, music, girls, the sound of empty beer bottles, etc). Was he any good?

"I was okay," he says, somewhat bashfully. "I can play, but I am just not that great. I’ve always been a sucker for ’80s rock. Bon Jovi and stuff like that."

He says he was originally drawn to the UFC by watching DVDs of The Ultimate Fighter 2, the season Rashad Evans emerged on, and was astonished to discover that Evans went on to be a champion on the sport. That piqued his interest enough to look into it deeper. He downloaded some Rutten basics, and moved six hours from his home to train at one of the few gyms in Norway.

"I figured the worst thing that could happen was that I get really, really good at it, but not good enough," he says.

Turns out he got really good — good enough for a series of escalating events which led to his chance in the UFC. He showed well on the European circuit, from Frederiksberg to Gothenburg, and won the Battle of Botnia. When he heard that the limb-collector Palhares was in need of an opponent in the Italian-based Venator, Meek lifted his axe in the air and shouted, "aye!"

Or, more accurately, he simply volunteered himself to do it.

"When I found out they were looking for an opponent, I couldn’t find a reason not to take it," he says. "I thought, instead of taking four hard fights with tough guys, I can just go to Palhares, and if I beat him I’ll be there. I think that if you go into a fight thinking about the worst possibilities that can happen in a fight, that’s pretty bad. You can get knocked out really seriously, some serious injuries, it’s a tough sport. It’s better to go in there and focus on what I’m supposed to do."

What he did was knockout Palhares in 45 seconds, something nobody’s been able to do to the polarizing Brazilian who was banished from the UFC for repeatedly holding submissions too long.

"I knew I had a lot of power," he says. "[Palhares]’s huge. I figured my cardio would a lot better than his, and if I could drag it out, that would be best scenario. But if I connected, I could end it, and that’s what happened."

That’s when the UFC took notice of "Valhalla." Or, as he says it, "that’s when I made them look at me." He was supposed to debut Jessie Ayari back in September in Hamburg, Germany, but had to withdraw due to medical treatments he underwent that he feared would run amuck with USADA. He said he was strictly being up front and precautionary.

Had he fought in Germany, his beard wouldn’t have been shorn. But Meek has the early look of a star in the making. He is charismatic…he is media savvy…he has the look…he adores his axe…he embodies the rock spirit…and he has a country behind him. In that way, he shares elements with Ireland’s Conor McGregor, who burst on the scene in 2013 with a reputation that preceded him. Only instead of word of mouth that traveled across the Atlantic, Meek has formed an army.

The "Valhalla Army." He doesn’t mind having his name loosely, and perhaps irresponsibly, mentioned in the same breath as McGregor’s, but he says he is very much his own individual, who has his own very individual approach to the fight game.

"I want to get as many people to join my army as possible," he says. "I want to create that special feeling when I enter the cage and everybody that’s there rooting for me, I want to bring them together."

His UFC debut comes against the 27-year old Mein, who is coming back after a two-year absence in which he retired and fully intended on staying that way. For Mein, who last fought Thiago Alves a UFC 183, it’ll be his 40th professional bout. There’s a huge experience gap between the two. Mein was fighting Rory MacDonald back when Evans was competing on TUF 2, long before Meek discovered any of it.

"This is a big chance for me," Meek says. "I take big risks, and I’m not going to fight forever. I’m 28 now. I’m not saying I’m old yet, but get old fast in this sport. I’m willing to take the biggest fights I can get and get as far as I can in the shortest amount of time. Jordan Mein for me, I look at him as a much tougher opponent than Palhares. If you look at his style compared to mine, I’m a perfect guy for Jordan."

But, then again, he was supposed to be the perfect guy for Palhares.

"I’m the best to shut down grapplers, punch them in the face when they try to take me down," he says. "But [Mein]’s a very, very experienced opponent, and a huge shot for me. And now that it got bumped up to the main card, all eyes will be on us, and I kind of feed on that. I think it was meant to be."

Meek will have all eyes on him tonight, and it’ll be his first big exposure to the North American audience. He won’t carry his beard as long as he wants, nor will he raise his axe towards Valhalla if he gets the victory. But a good showing might be enough to bring people on board for his voyage.

"I’d love for more people to join my army," he says, and again those eyebrows spike with no jadedness at all, like a true dreamer in the game."